|The ancient Scottish ice-sport of curling is little known in wider New Zealand. But down in Central Otago where irrigation dams can freeze solid in the harsh winters, it is a tradition. Among the participants is a local family renown for its curling prowess. The Beckers’ have long led New Zealand curling teams to international success, seemingly against the odds.
Three generations of curlers are represented at 92 year-old Jim Becker's home on the family's Maniototo high country farm. Jim, his son Peter, and grandson Sean chat amicably, touting one another’s exploits on the ice.
Thirty-two-year-old Sean is skip of the New Zealand men's team. He will take the predominately new team to compete in the Pacific Championships in Beijing in November, and last year he led an established team at the 2006 Winter Olympics. “Where I had to honour of carrying the flag for my country,” says Sean.
The team didn’t get placed, but just qualifying for an Olympics is a huge achievement in curling.
'It's more monumental than most people realise,' says Sean’s dad Peter.
To qualify, the team had to have enough points from three prior world championships. But to even qualify for world championships, the team has to first win at Pacific Championships: six Australasian countries compete, and most have strong teams.
The New Zealand men's team has won the Pacific Championship four times (1999/2001/2004/2005), three when Sean was skip. 'I'm better known in Canada,' he says. There, curling is a popular sport second only to ice hockey.
Curling is similar to lawn bowls except it is played on ice with smooth 20kg granite stones. It is a game of strategy and skill; which the Becker family has always taken on wholeheartedly.
Jim took three teams on a UK tour in 1973; Sean's mum Wendy, has represented New Zealand; his brother James plays socially; his sister Bridget has been the skip of the New Zealand women's team since 2001; his brother Scott was skip of the New Zealand junior men's team until this year when he was selected for the New Zealand men’s team; and Peter is skip of the New Zealand senior men's team, which will compete in Finland next year. He led the senior men’s team at the 2003, 2005 and 2007 world senior championships and was skip of the New Zealand men's team (1991-1996) before handing over to Sean in 1997.
Says Peter: It’s a lot of commitment financially and time-wise.’
Curling goes back five generations on one side of the Becker family, and four on the other. They all grew up with it. Says Sean: 'We've got photos of me and my cousins when we were three or four; banging stones together and being pushed up and down the ice on them by my uncle, father and grandfather.'
Says Jim: 'It's the kind of game you can have in your back yard.'
And Peter does. In 1970 he and Jim created a pond to practice curling on (50m x 8m). 'We did it with a tractor originally,' says Peter. However, the pond only freezes solidly enough once every four years nowadays. Winter 2007 provided excellent conditions.
Curling was introduced to Central Otago by Scottish gold miners in the1800s. 'The winters were harsher then,' says Jim. 'And they had tons of ice, and apparently, they had tons of fun.'
Those early curlers brought with them the traditional crampit-style game, where you have to lift the heavy stone and swing it out onto the ice. In the modern game the stone stays on the ice and the curler pulls it back and then slides out with it for about 10 metres before letting go. Says Sean: 'As the ice conditions have got better and people have learned more about making ice, the game's developed along with it.'
But because of New Zealand's isolation its curlers didn't cotton-on to the developments until the early 1990s. Says Peter: 'It was a very very steep learning curve.'
New Zealand is now the only country in the world where the traditional crampit style is still played consistently. It was also one of the last curling countries to get a dedicated, year-round curling facility. The Maniototo Curling International only opened in July 2005.
Up until then, New Zealand’s Olympic qualifiers and curling champions had always practiced in public skating arenas or on nature's open air ice rinks.
Says Peter: 'The rest of the curlers in the world just shake their heads, they can't figure out how we got there.'